On Stanley Kunitz, Memoir, and Fiction

Sitting in my critique group the other night, it was Stanley Kunitz who came to mind as we discussed the challenges in writing memoir.

Not because Stanley Kunitz wrote memoir, but because his poem, The Layers, seemed to answer the question of how to write memoir.

How does a writer condense decades of one’s life into 300 pages?

What years do you ignore? Which memories do you highlight? And, how do you make it all come together without retelling every minute of every day of how you got from there to here?

After my mother passed away, a good friend gave me Stanley Kunitz’s book, The Collected Poems, and she pointed me to page 217. The poem,  The Layers, in its entirety, is a beautiful tribute to loved ones gone but never forgotten. We are touched by the people in our lives in a way that, even after their presence is diminished – for one reason or another – we still feel their power.

Two specific passages from that poem stayed with me during the early days, months, years of grieving for my mother. Then, as I sat around the table with other writers and talked about memoir, those passages burst forth again:

When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.


Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

Writing memoir isn’t about retelling every detail of every day. It’s about picking and choosing those pivotal moments, or about recounting those powerful relationships in our lives, that served as a catalyst – that swayed us one way or another or shifted our perspective slightly – and forced us to grow and to change.

I mentioned the poem to my critique partners, and the second I related it to memoir, I realized the same principle applies to fiction. The main character in my WIP has experienced pivotal moments in her life as well. I don’t have to wrestle her into confessing every gorey detail about her life from first memory and beyond. I only need to discover places along her journey where she stayed – just long enough – that they left an imprint, and I only need to write on the people in her life who, like precious stones, line her path of character development.

*****

Kunitz, Stanley. The Collected Poems. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print.

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4 responses to “On Stanley Kunitz, Memoir, and Fiction

  1. I like the tying of memoir to fiction. The area I tend to struggle with most is back story, because I tend to rely on flashbacks. I prefer a more show/tell back story style, but find it difficult to manage smoothly.

    The comment about leaving an imprint helps because it makes me realize that in the back story, I’m probably lingering too long and only need those moments of imprint. (I’m not sure this is clear, but trust me, what you wrote is helpful.)

  2. Beautiful post, Christi. I don’t know how I missed seeing it before now.

    I love weaving in the bits of my characters that are imprints from the past, even if only I know the backstory. Some of them are tiny details, like secrets between me and the character.

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